Gorman: A final round for Arnie's Army
Arnold Palmer's memorial service started, as you might expect, with a request from a member of Arnie's Army.
It was one the audience at St. Vincent Basilica in Latrobe would oblige, one we wish we could experience one more time from golf's greatest ambassador.
“Might I suggest,” master of ceremonies Charlie Mechem said, “that the tone and the mood of this service be best exemplified by the image of him striding up the fairway with that iconic smile of his, hitching up his pants and giving a thumbs-up.”
Golf greats, family and friends bid farewell Tuesday to the man known as The King, one revered for the ease with which he could rub elbows with royalty yet connect with the common man.
Palmer, who died Sept. 25 at age 87, is credited with popularizing the white-collar sport in the 1950s and '60s with his blue-collar mentality. Palmer played with bravado and brilliance — or, as Mechem said in golf parlance, “sneaky smart” — in winning 62 PGA Tour titles, including four Masters, two British Opens and a U.S. Open.
On this beautiful day, Arnie's Army included captain Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson of the reigning Ryder Cup champions, who brought the trophy.
“It just meant so much to all of us and my Ryder Cup team,” Love said. “It was a sad day for golf, but we were glad we were all together. It's what Arnie would have wanted, for us to go on and play. I'm happy to be here. ...
“Arnie would have loved to see this trophy. It's a sad day, but it's also part of a celebration. This cup's for him.”
Its proudest member might be Jack Nicklaus, Palmer's fierce but friendly rival. Nicklaus beat Palmer in a playoff at the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont. With a tear in his eye, Nicklaus recalled countless “remember whens” of his most cherished moments with Palmer in a friendship that spanned exactly 58 years.
“He was an everyday man. Everyone's hero,” Nicklaus said of Palmer. “Arnold managed to removed the ‘i' from ‘icon' and let the world share in his greatness.”
Arnie's Army included PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who said Palmer revolutionized the sport and sports marketing with his “deep, deep love and affection for what it meant to be a professional golfer.” The game grew from 5 million golfers in the U.S. to 30 million, from 5,000 golf courses to 15,000.
“The puzzling thing for me is, why was he so popular?” Finchem said. “Was it because of the way he played the game? Was it the way he created excitement on television? He had this other thing, this incredible ability to make you feel good, not only about him but yourself.”
Finchem asked the audience inside the basilica, which held almost 1,000 people, to lift their hands and give a thumbs-up.
Arnold's Army included Sam Saunders, who had the blessing of being Palmer's grandson and the burden of following him into the sport as a pro golfer.
Saunders shared the story of his last phone call with the grandfather they called “Dumpy” — a nickname borne when granddaughter Emily tried to call him “grumpy” — and the best advice Palmer ever gave.
Talk less and listen more.
What we listened to was simply beautiful, from “America the Beautiful,” by the St. Vincent College Singers to country artist Vince Gill singing “You've Got a Friend” to bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” as N1AP co-pilot Pete Luster did a flyover in Palmer's Cessna Citation X.
Arnie's Army included former Cessna CEO and chairman emeritus Russ Meyer, who called Palmer's friendship “one of the blessings of my lifetime.” Meyer talked about Arnie's love affair with aviation, that he wasn't just a pilot but an outstanding pilot, one who was as good gripping the controls as he was a golf club.
Arnie's Army included CBS Sports broadcaster Jim Nantz, who marveled at how Palmer could relate to everybody and told a story of Queen Elizabeth asking how many people Palmer had played golf with.
“Can we give him one more walk, one more ovation for the 18th?” Nantz asked his audience. For the next minute, Palmer received a rousing standing ovation. “We're going to miss him,” Nantz said, “the captain of our game.”
Arnie's Army included Peter Dawson, former chief executive of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, who credited Palmer with resurrecting the British Open in the 1960s.
“Yes, Arnold was golf's greatest ambassador at both home and abroad,” Dawson said. “He mixed with heads of state ... but never lost his common touch. He was ‘The King' and always will be. Has anyone done more for the game? No one should come even close.”
Arnie's Army included Annika Sorenstam, whose friendship with Palmer went beyond the golf course. Sorenstam thanked Palmer for his charitable contributions to Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, where her son, Will, was born 13 weeks prematurely.
“Arnold inspired millions with his kindness and generosity, and I see that in Will,” Sorenstam said. “Even though you were ‘The King,' you made everyone feel like royalty in your presence.”
Mechem reminded us that an army becomes stronger when losing its leader out of respect and asked that of Arnie's Army.
It was a perfect day and a perfect way to honor Palmer — the only better way would have been with a round of golf — and included a final request.
“I simply ask you to just remember when Arnold Palmer touched your life, touched your heart,” Nicklaus said. “And, please, don't forget why.”
Arnie's Army was left with an everlasting image: Palmer, with a thumbs-up and a smile, striding the fairway to heaven.